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  • Evil and/or/as The Good: Omnicentrism, Intersubjectivity, and Value Paradox in Tiantai Buddhist Thought
  • David R. Loy
Evil and/or/as The Good: Omnicentrism, Intersubjectivity, and Value Paradox in Tiantai Buddhist Thought. By Brook Ziporyn. Harvard-Yenching Monograph no. 51. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. Pp. x + 482. Hardcover $60.00.

Does Mahāyāna Buddhism have a problem with evil? Buddhism generally focuses on ignorance (a problem of understanding) rather than evil (Abrahamic sin is more a problem of the will). Early Buddhism does have a lot to say about the three roots of evil, which need to be transformed into their positive counterparts—greed into generosity, ill will into loving-kindness, ignorance into wisdom. But the Mahāyāna emphasis on śūnyatā puts a different slant on saṃsāra. The focus on realizing emptiness seems to work better for ignorance/delusion than for evil: wisdom/prajñā involves realizing that everything is śūnya. Then how are we to distinguish good from evil deeds, if from the highest point of view they are equally śūnya?

We can get another angle on what is at stake by using the metaphor of Indra's net, which implies paradoxes for knowledge and value. Every node is a jewel that reflects all the other nodes—but that means "deluded" nodes manifest all those others as much as "enlightened" ones do. We may want to distinguish between those nodes that are aware of the true nature of the net and those that are not, but every node is an effect (and cause) of all the others. One cannot adopt a bird's-eye view that observes the whole objectively, because the net does not allow for sub specie aeternitas; any perspective we might take is nothing more than one more interdependent node.

There is the same problem with distinguishing between good and evil activities. We want to say that there is a significant difference between a selfish action and a compassionate one, but Indra's net gives us no criterion to discriminate between them, inasmuch as every node manifests the whole as well as every other node, whether or not it knows it or intends it. We can play word games about what is truth and what is delusion, but when we turn to good and evil the stakes become very high. Are we really willing to accept that from the highest point of view crashing a hijacked airliner into a skyscraper is no better or worse than the compassionate acts of a Buddha?

In 1016 the well-known Tiantai master Siming Zhili (960-1028) publicly announced he intended to do something that he acknowledged was evil. He defended himself by asking "What difference is there between the Buddha and the devil? . . . [S]ince the original natures of the two are merged together from the beginning, how could their manifestations be any different from one another? . . . [O]ther than the devil there is no Buddha, and other than the Buddha there is no devil." [End Page 99]

Brook Ziporyn's monograph Evil and/or/as The Good is a detailed exposition and subtle defense of Zhili's argument identifying value and anti-value, with ample reference to Western ethical theory as well as to the Chinese Buddhist context for his position. Ziporyn elaborates Zhili's claim that good and evil are nothing but two names for a single entity, which means that each term alone is a way to denote all that exists. For Zhili the perfect man "is capable of both good and evil" (p. 74).

Ziporyn reflects on how the Chinese tradition provides an alternative to the usual antithetical way we understand the relationship between good and evil. The Tiantai school, in particular, was known for attributing Buddha-nature to evil. He begins by explaining "omnicentric holism." Indra's Net is an example (although one not much used in this book): any point in the system can be the center to which everything else is subordinated and which everything else supports and explains. Since this includes all subjectivity, any subject's misapprehension of the whole also becomes a complete and adequate apprehension of that whole. Value paradoxes arise because...


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